The whole world is an enigma.

Secret themes, lost manuscripts, broken celebrity crushes… we explore the myriad ways that the music in our 2024/25 season teases us and why that is part of the thrill.

Enigmas have always nourished the human imagination. In the modern world we think of the code-breaking heroics of Alan Turing and his colleagues. We revel in the complexities of a detective mystery, in the exhilaration of searching for the key to unlock it.

The music we love is a tangle of riddles and puzzles. Possibly waiting for us to solve it. But perhaps not knowing the answer is what we should truly cherish.

"I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."
Umberto Eco

Our 2024/25 season will end with Elgar’s great masterpiece, the Enigma Variations. Its hidden theme has teased us for over a century. Do you have a theory of what its secret is? That is just one of the many enigmas we’ll encounter. What of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? We don’t know why the composer chose these six specific concertos as a gift to Christian of Brandenburg. Just as compelling is the story of what happened over the next 200 years: the disappearance and rediscovery of the manuscript, its publication, then nearly being blown up in World War I before the advent of the recording industry made them the icon they are today. 

Even without the stories these pieces would stand as testament to the human imagination. But they add to our appreciation of the work as expressions of our humanity.

Then there is the enigma of Greatness. Baroquebusters (on 9 January) is more than a Greatest Hits Jukebox; it will explore why certain pieces grabbed their first listeners and have embedded themselves in the public consciousness ever since. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in March Das Jahr (The Year) shines a light on a composer, Fanny Mendelssohn, whose remarkable talents have been hidden from us for 200 years, almost in plain sight.

The fabled tale of Beethoven scratching out the dedication to Napoleon on his ‘Eroica’ Symphony speaks volumes of the enigmatic nature of heroism. Today’s liberator is tomorrow’s villain. His Violin Concerto highlights the heroic nature of performance. Each soloist adds their name to the hallowed litany of past warriors: Joachim, Heifetz, Zukerman. 

Perhaps the greatest enigma contained in music is its ability to decode human sentiment – our fears, hopes and beliefs – all without words. It can hold for all eternity, or at least many centuries, the love people two people, as with the Schumanns – Robert and Clara – whose personal relationship is ciphered through musical phrases. Or it might be what we often label as the Mystery of Faith. Bruckner translated holiness into cathedral-like structures; bemusing yet also dazzling.

In the last 300 years no work has approached the ultimate enigma, humanity’s relationship with the divine, more profoundly than Bach’s St Matthew Passion. At the end we are left waiting for conclusion, a classic cliffhanger as the chorus declares: “Therefore, command that now the tomb be guarded until the three days pass, so none of his disciples come forth and steal him hence and to the people say: ‘He is risen from the dead,’ for thus will the final deceit be worse than the first one!”. We are reminded of sceptical interrogation even in the face of what Bach and his congregation considered ‘self-evident’ truths. 

Is there an underlying truth in all this music? Probably not. Yet in coming together to share in it we might find a secret key: one that unlocks the door to joy, generosity and, of course, Enlightenment.

You can explore all the concerts in our 2024/25 Southbank Centre season online now. Priority booking for Friends & Patrons of the OAE opens on Wednesday 17 April. General booking for Autumn/Winter concerts (events from October 2024 to January 2025) opens on Tuesday 23 April at 10.00am.